Last updated: March 17, 2020
- Grade Level:
- Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
- Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
- Lesson Duration:
- 90 Minutes
- Common Core Standards:
- 6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
- Additional Standards:
- US History Era US History Era 7 Standard 3B: The student understands how a modern capitalist economy emerged in the 1920s.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
Follow the highways of the 1920s and 1930s, exploring the whimsical, extravagant architecture that came with American auto culture.
1. To explain the impact the automobile had on business as merchants and city leaders strove to gain financially from increased automobile traffic during the 1920s and 1930s;
2. To define and explain the motivation for literalism in advertising, place-product-packaging, and boosterism, and to compare current examples with those of the 1920s and 1930s;
3. To identify local structures that reflect "novelty" architecture;
4. To list the changes that auto culture brought to their own community.
Time Period: 1920s and 1930s
Topics: The lesson could be used in units on popular culture or the rise of American motor tourism.
Have you ever bought your milk while inside a milk bottle? Paid for your gas inside a teapot or a sea shell? Slept in a wigwam? Climbed on a dinosaur? Have you compared your foot size with that of Paul Bunyan? These and many more such activities attracted hometowners and tourists alike as millions of Americans took to the road when the automobile revolutionized American life. Some set off on ambitious cross-country trips; others on jaunts to neighboring states to visit newly opened national parks; and some simply crossed town for Sunday dinner or to pick up milk from the store.
In this lesson, students will examine five examples of roadside architecture built in the 1920s and 1930s and designed to catch the eye of passing motorists—three represented literalism in advertising, one was intended as a political joke, and one was designed to lure the traveler into spending the night in an "exotic" setting. The students also will examine two examples of colossal roadside sculptures that exemplify the concept of boosterism.
Few inventions have had as great and as widespread an impact as the automobile. By 1920, more than 300 cities had roadside camping facilities for motorists and more than one million people used them. Streets and highways were quickly built or modernized and a uniform numbering system for highways was introduced in 1925; by 1930 nearly 27 million cars were registered. The production, sale, repair, and servicing of cars provided work for millions. The Great Depression struck the tourist trade a great blow. Expenditures for hotels, restaurants, vacation clothing, and travel supplies fell from $872 million in 1929 to $444 million in 1932. Clearly, the people who would stay in business during tough times would be those who could appeal to the smaller number of tourists on the road.
By the time prosperity returned, roadside advertising had become a normal operating cost for businesses. Fanciful buildings, signs, and colossal sculptures were a colorful feature of highway culture and commerce during the 1920s and 30s. Highly visible and usually humorous, these "roadside attractions" were designed to catch the eye of the passing motorist and entice potential customers. All in all, the 1920s and—in spite of the Great Depression—the 1930s literally changed the American landscape.
Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.
Society for Commercial Archeology
The Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA) is the oldest national organization devoted to the artifacts, structures, signs, and symbols of the 20th-century commercial landscape. SCA's Web page offers links to a variety of sites related to historic highways and roadside attractions.
Minnesota Historical Society
The Minnesota Historical Society's Roadside Architecture Web page presents a list (and some photographs) of various roadside attractions in the state, including Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, Minnesota.